Devious heroine inhabits Tuscan idyll

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February 7, 2013

The Whirling Girl
By Barbara Lambert
Cormorant Books, 395 pages, $22

Reviewed by Vivian Smith

Do you like the board game Clue, in which many suspects are introduced at once and a plateful of red herrings is meant to throw players off the track of whodunit?

Have you been captured by the crafting of Tuscany as an enchanted land of incomparable light, food and ancient villages, as portrayed in pastel movies like Under the Tuscan Sun and books like The Tuscan Year?

Do you enjoy fiction in which a beautiful “Botticelli” heroine from grey, rainy western Washington State (so like Victoria in winter) goes to warm, sunny Italy under mysterious circumstances and the men she encounters are either “alarmingly handsome” or shaggily “leonine” with hints of “petulance” about them?

Would you like the idea of a cream-coloured Mercedes in the rear-view mirror and then later, a turreted castle in which said heroine and the wildly rich owner of said Mercedes (and castle) make love in a great silk bed, because, as we learn early on, such a liaison is foretold?

And do you stand with novels in which every few pages, a series of long questions such as these precedes minuscule plot advancements? Do you appreciate reading some sentences in Italics so you know to pay closer attention?

If you’ve answered yes six times, then this novel will have you as sweetly giddy as if you’d drunk deeply of grappa in a sun-dappled piazza. Me? I felt like a whirling girl myself, at first busily marking plot points and character introductions with yellow sticky-notes so as not to get as lost as one might while hunting through underbrush for Etruscan treasure. That is what protagonist Clare Livingston sets off to do in the olive-groved hills near Cortona. I set down my sticky notes about a quarter of the way in, realizing, through foreshadow as translucent as extra virgin olive oil, that most of it wouldn’t matter in the end anyway.

Clare’s beloved uncle has died, you see, and left her a property in Tuscany, which may – just may – hold ancient artifacts of great worth. He leaves this potential treasure-trove to her “with forgiveness,” which we come to learn has to do with their early relationship as professor/mentor and lonely child. Decades later, Clare’s devotion to her work as a botanical artist, described in rich, meticulous detail for which I was grateful, seems to be the best part of her. Otherwise, I found Clare to be a hard-to-love heroine who determinedly lies to the world about how she researched her own book. She also wreaks vengeance on her ex-husband for his infidelity, after having been the other woman during his own earlier marriage; and she has a role in the ruin of her uncle. And her lover Mr. Mercedes? Gianni, sure enough, is married, too. I did glean one possibly useful insight into the mind of a plagiarist, though, as Clare excuses her huge professional fib as an act of self-indulgence. Never heard that one before.

Clare is, of course, the whirling girl of the title, a woman still spinning inside old lies as she makes up new ones on her Italian adventure, until even she cannot lie any more. The image comes from the kind of Etruscan artifact that her uncle taught her to love: a “dancing woman wearing pointed shoes, whirling, the movement evident in her whipping sleeves, a seven-tiered incense-burner balanced on her head.” I would like to have seen that girl on the cover, rather than a dark painting of a woman at a party, as handsome as the Charles Pachter artwork is.

If, as the book’s front flap suggests, you find in these pages a vivid exploration of what conditions “foster art, or love and the unearthing of civilization’s buried stories,” then you are perhaps a more romantic and forgiving narrative excavator than I.

Vivian Smith is a Victoria-based journalist, writing coach and magazine editor. She is also an occasional sessional instructor in the Department of Writing.




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